You may recall earlier this month I was talking about customer engagement – the kind of engagement based on stories, on meaning, on value and change. Making news almost every day has been the story of potential privatisation of poles and wires in NSW but also behind the scenes that the Australian Energy Regulator (the AER) has been seeking massive cost savings from energy networks, up in the order of 40%. The AER asked those network owners and operators to talk to their customers: not just inform, and more that just consult: actually engage them in a conversation about what sort of outcomes all stakeholders were trying to achieve. It seems, as an outsider, that the nature of the engagement just as much as the outcome was important.
Ian Holland, Director of Services Development at UnitingCare Australia recently joined us at a members meeting and created significant feedback and discussion talking about deliberative forums in the AER process. Seems that the best long term interests of customers were not rising to the top in the energy price setting process. After giving Yarra Valley Water well deserved kudos for their use of deliberative forums in the recent price determination process (and I have since heard other utilities like Seqwater will be heading down this path), Ian also highlighted the lessons learnt in running these forums. The take home message for me was that these forums must have a binding outcome incorporated into decision making or you’re wasting everyone’s time. That might form a lump at the back of your throat for many in the water sector, but Ian encouraged us to think long and hard about including regulators and have these forums managed by independent and experienced facilitators. Obviously his pleas were heard loud and clear, many members are keen for WSAA to develop a program in this space.
Talking of engagement, many of you also know that the UK water industry has recently completed the PR14 process – or in other words the price setting process for the next five years starting now. In an excellent summary paper, Ofwat (the economic regulator) could not have stressed more the absolute priority of having customers as front and centre of the business planning process. This incorporated customer challenge groups challenging utilities about the outcomes everyone is seeking through both capital investment and operating priorities. Two utilities received special mention for their customer engagement (‘collect $200 as you pass go’ type of acknowledgement, formally called ‘enhanced’ status): Affinity Water and South West Water. We’re very excited to welcome Chris Loughlin, CEO of South West Water to Australia in May to take us through the whole customer engagement process that appears to have been a real highlight in the UK. Chris will join us in multiple forums, including the WSAA stream at Ozwater.
Chris will head a line up of speakers including Hamish Reid from South East Water in Melbourne, Reg Chamberlain from NRMAand Anika Johnstone from SA Water focusing on how customers and utilities will engage in the digital era. For the NRMA in particular, how did it reinvent itself as an organisation given the huge competition it faced from dealer specific road side assistance. Was it all based on new technology? Was there an emotional connection – the type we find in water – that could provide that market lead?
So capturing this weeks blogs, from Canada to Canberra and back to the UK, customer and community engagement is top of mind for the water sector.